Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Wednesday, April 27, 2016 12:30 am by M. in ,    No comments
Our thanks to the publishers for sending us an ARC of this book.
The Madwoman Upstairs
Catherine Lowell
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 9781501124211
March 2016
Fiction somehow related to the Brontës will be a common trend these coming months. Fictions about the Brontës are not so abundant since the historical novel fever of some years ago but sequels or retellings of their novels are even more popular then they used to be (even if there is never a shortage of them). But there is a third type of Brontë-related fiction: the contemporary novel which features the Brontës as a commentary to the action and their presence in the life of the characters as motifs, landscapes. influences through the reading of their novels or even the world of Brontë studies. Recent examples that come to mind without any intention of being exhaustive are Four Dreamers and Emily by Stevie Davis, The Brontë Project by Jennifer Vandervelt or The Brontë Plot by Katherine Reay.

Catherine Lowell's debut nobel, The Madwoman Upstairs belongs partially to this group of books. It's a book about the reception of the Brontës but it's also a book about the Brontës in a way, because the main character, Samantha Whipple, is the last member of the Brontë family. The book creates a parallel Brontë literary history where the Brontë descendants are alive and some of them, like the father of Samantha, are authors themselves. A parallel world where it is believed that the Brontë descendants have inherited a considerable Brontë 'estate' that they are hiding from public view(1).

Here is a novel with many simultaneous layers. It's a description from an American point of view of the sometimes bizarre world of literary academia in places like Oxford. It's a subdued but nonetheless moving love story. It's a story about how to survive sudden loss and how to deal with (or how to hide from) pain. It's a discussion about the value of literature and literary criticism confronting views about authorial intent (new criticism vs intentionalists mainly)(2) and it's, of course, a mystery and a treasure hunt that has to be solved(3).

Not all the layers work with the same intensity. Probably the less interesting it's arguably the one under which the novel has been sold: the mystery and treasure hunt. No spoilers intended, but for the hardcore Brontë aficionado it is not really very difficult to guess at once one of  the 'treasures' and imagine the other(s) will be. It's also hard to believe that some of the obvious clues are not spotted for people so versed on the Brontës as the main character or her (sort of) nemesis, the Brontë Parsonage director John Booker(4). There is also the somehow arbitrary character of the 'treasures' themselves. One wonders if they have to be read just as macguffins, but the novel itself does not treat them as such, giving them a meaning that is lacking in the end.

But the Brontës are not only on the surface of the novel. They also permeate the novel in all levels, creating a well-measured subtext which quotes explicitly or not from Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre (madwomen and fires included) and particularly and extensively from Anne Brontë's both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. This vindication of the youngest of the Brontë sisters is very welcome indeed(5). The Samantha-Orville relationship deserves special mention as it obviously echoes the Rochester-Jane one in a quite nice and well-resolved parallel.

Where the novel excels is in the description of the world of academia, and old Oxford colleges. Catherine Lowell's writing is funny and inventive. She manages to describe a sometimes bizarre world (even more from an American point of view) with a witty prose, never disrespectful. The author also creates a great character in Samantha. She is not the most likeable of characters but, in a way, she is irresistible. Contradictory (she can be extremely shy or absurdly bold, irritant, stupid, vulnerable... at the same time) and in a permanent search for meaning for her life (through her self-imposed legacy quest, through literature, trough her ancestors... ), she is the novel. So much so, that you will like the book as much as you are able to connect with her.

(1) Which opens an interesting debate that the novel doesn't explore: Is it licit to publicly expose things that the original owners didn't want exposed?
(2) Even the reader-response school gets a mention. Although the level of the discussion does not cross the Reader's Digest line, few novels are comfortable, like this one, discussing literary criticism (assuming literary criticism is something more that putting likes on an author's Facebook).
(3) Not to be compared with Robert Barnard's The case of the Missing Brontë. Barnard plays in another league.
(4) The true Brontëite will also notice that it is hardly necessary to take a taxi from the KWVR Haworth station, where Samantha arrives in Haworth, to the Parsonage. 
(5) Some of Samantha's crazy theories about Charlotte, Anne or both being the madwoman in the attic à la Gilbert and Gubar are quite funny.


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